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fromheadtoheart flag England - Full Moon 200 - 12/28/12

From head to heart
Gentle Giant's Octopus

Following our retroscope series of latter years, here we go again! Here's Speakers' corner's cousin; From head to heart. Luna Kafé's focused eye on great events, fantastic happenings, absolute milestones, or other curious incidents from the historic shelves'n'vaults of pop'n'rock. Blowing our ears and our head, punching our chest and shaking our heart. Making us go sentimental, but not slaphappy. This moonth the Lunar archival shuttle takes us 40 years back in time. To the prog rock days of the early 70s. They were naming their album after a "cephalopod mollusc of the order Octopoda", but... where the sea animal has only got four pairs of arms, the band had 6 pairs. Plus, of course, a number of additional helping hands for production and design tasks. And, where the octopus is bilaterally symmetric, the band members (I guess) had their individual facial and bodily symmetry (even though there were three brothers among them). Musically, on the other hand, they were in full symmetry, showing 'harmonious or aesthetically pleasing proportionality and balance'. Back to the se animal; '...octopuses are among the most intelligent and behaviorally flexible of all invertebrates. Maybe 'intelligent and behaviorally flexible' could be a good description of this album as well.


Gentle Giant

Here, boys and girls, is something special from the age when progressive rock and glitter rock ruled the western world. Octopus belongs to the first category and turned 40 years earlier this moonth.

If ever there was band that deserved to be called progressive, Gentle Giant is it! Apart from the band's last three albums, released in the late 1970s, they always aimed at breaking new musical grounds. And they did so without putting the individual band members' skills and egos in front, unlike some others of the era we might remember. Still, the boys in the band seemed to try to do different when they started the work of Octopus. Originally they wanted one song about each of the six band members and the two man strong crew. Well, they ended up with eight tracks, like the eight tentacles of an octopus, but they seem only partly to have something to do with the egos and personalities of the members. The album includes an instrumental, "The Boys In The Band", originally intended to demonstrate the individual skills. Well, it's a tour de force in a very hectic tempo, with some short spots where the pace is turned down, that leaves very little space available for solos. Gentle Giant was seldom the band to draw attention to solo performances. The entirety of a song or instrumental seems much more important to the band than anything else. So instead of doing a Yes, Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer or King Crimson, Octopus ends as an album sounding very much like... Gentle Giant!

The origins of Gentle Giant stem from a hard working r'n'b-, later turning towards soul and soul-pop-band called Simon Dupree & The Big Sound that included the three Shulman brothers Phil, Derek and Ray. They recorded a handful of singles and an LP for EMI. In 1967 they were forced by their management to follow the tide and record a little ditty called "Kites" with overt psychedelic overtones and a wind machine and a majestic Mellotron underneath. The band really hated it, but it was a hit by the end of that year. Although the chorus is a bit too pompous, I think it is one of the greatest songs of the era and it still gives me the creeps. Simon & his gang tried to stick to their original formulae whereas the management wanted more hits. In late 1968 they released the single "We Are The Moles" as The Moles. It was almost a hit because rumours spread that The Moles were in fact The Beatles in disguise, until Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, also an EMI artist, revealed the truth. Due to problems with musical direction and general frustration, the Shulman brothers dissolved the band by the end of the decade, kept the drummer and found a more ambitious guitarist and ditto keyboardist than the remaining members of The Big Sound. The innocence of the 1960s was over, and it was time for more serious business. The brothers had been encouraged by their father, a jazz trumpeter, to learn different instruments. By the time of formation of Gentle Giant they handled trumpets, saxophones, violins and guitars. In additions they were all competent vocalists. Kerry Minnear (all kinds of keyboards, vibraphone, cello and vocals) had just graduated from The Royal College of Music whereas guitarist Gary Green had little formal musical education but was eager to seek new challenges along with the rest.

Octopus was Giant's fourth studio album and marks both the end and the beginning of an era. The band's second drummer Malcolm Mortimore was hurt in a motorcycle accident and John 'Pugwash' Weathers (previously with The Eyes Of Blue, Pete Brown & Piblokto! and Graham Bond) stepped in on short notice for some gigs in April 1972, and stayed. He also handled percussion and later marimba that fit nicely with his new gang. Octopus was his first album with the Giant. And it was to be Phil Shulman's last. He fell out with his younger brothers, to some extent, and hectic touring of the band didn't fit with his family life. It might also have something to do with the gigs when Gentle Giant played support for Black Sabbath... Need we say more?

Some claims Octopus is the hardest rocking album of the Giant canon. I'm not quite sure about that. The band often put a lot of creativity into each song. It might start rather heavy (well, of the 1972 standard, not by today's), like "A Cry For Everyone" here that has a hard-bluesy guitar riff that even might please the Black Sabbath fans of the time. But you can be pretty sure they jump into something completely different within 40 seconds. Not unlike vintage Frank Zappa that could also cram enough themes into a short song that others might have expanded into three or four, maybe even an entire album. Here are all the instruments mentioned above and also keyboards of every flavour of the day including the new wonder, The Moog synthesizer. The six strong man band was a complete orchestra on their own in the studio. And the melody lines, time signature changes and contrapuntal motions flourish. The music is a happy blend of rock, blues, jazz, folk and classical. But Gentle Giant didn't draw on quite the same kind of classical and folk as most of their contemporaries. Giant digged deeper, into medieval structures, for instance madrigal kind of singing, like the four harmony vocal part of "Knots", and something close to modern day serious compositions. In the hands of a less considerate band the material might've turned into a catastrophe. With Gentle Giant it seems to be handled in an everyday kind and playful way, without any big gestures or underlying artificial pretentiousness.

The albums opens with "The Advent Of Panurge", the most overt progressive song leaning towards jazz included here, and a few surprises in addition. About the friendly - and yes, of course, gentle - giant Pantagruel that meets a lifelong friend. "Raconteur, Troubadour" is an attempt at English medieval troubadour song, in a modern setting with violin, electric piano and organ taking the lead. We're even in for a couple of close-to-ballad songs. "A Dog's Life" is a tribute to the Gentle Giant roadies that includes many balladry elements like classical guitar and violins. A sweet little baroque-pop ditty. "Think Of Me With Kindness" is straighter, even with an unctuous trumpet passage that balances on the edge of what the groundbreaking band ought to be dealing with. But in this environment it is passable. Apart from the impressive vocal efforts, "Knots" includes strange minimalistic tape-loop-alike instrumental passages before the entire band kicks in for a little while. A strange vibraphone solo, sort of, is the only part of the album that doesn't work for me. The lyrics of the song is inspired by the poetic riddles of the famous psychiatrist R.D. Laing. Here's an example:

'It hurts him to think that she is
hurting her by him being hurt to think
that she thinks he is hurt by making her
feel guilty at hurting him by her thinking
she wants him to want her. He wants her to
want him to get him to want him to get
him to want her she pretends.'

It has to be added that the cover of Octopus, the British version that is, was painted by Roger Dean. It's not of the pompous light fantasy kind as his works for Yes around the same time. The album was produced by the band and engineered by Martin Rushent, later to find fame and fortune as producer of The Stranglers, Joy Division (only demos), The Buzzcocks, Pete Shelley and not least Human League. Octopus is still rewarding listening to, there's something new to be discovered each time you give it a spin. I'm not quite sure if it's the very best of Gentle Giant, but it sure is in my top three Giant album list along with Acquiring The Taste and In A Glass House. The boys in the band gave in during the summer 1980 and have never been persuaded hard enough to reunite. Let's remember them with great kindness and thankfulness, for their uncompromising music.

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